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THE SECRET OF OUR SUPERIORITY





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On the morning of the next day, ten Mujahideen came in, and the Young Man packed up quickly, but they only stretched out to sleep. That afternoon they pulled some refugee medicines from their baggage and asked the Young Man to explain the labels. The Young Man did his best, and they noted down his words beside the English names. One of the Mujahideen took a capsule of oral tetracycline, opened it, and poured its yellow powder onto a blister, which he had first prepared for treatment by rubbing it with a matchhead. They went through all the medicines, opening tins and packets which should have been kept sealed until use, and doling them out — a handful of painkillers, antibiotics and B vitamins per man, all tossed together in a length of previously sterile bandage. They asked the Young Man if there was anything to make them strong. One of the doctors in the camps had told him, “Every Afghan believes American medicines will turn him into a superman.” —The Young Man knew that they would hold it against him if he refused to disclose the secret. Reflecting on the diet of the traveling fighter — a piece of bread, a raw onion, a lump of hardened sugar and a cup of tea — he decided that it was ethical to point to the B vitamins, which he did. They were all happy. They asked him how many to take. Fancying himself a great social liberator, he said one a day for them, and two a day for the women and children. All the men immediately took two.

 

TRIUMPHAL RETURN

 

At pindzuh o’clock in the evening, there was big excitement. — “Poor Man, Poor Man!” they all said. The Young Man didn’t see the guerrilla leader, but he was willing to accept the idea that smoke signals or something had been perceived. A moment later a new man rushed in and cried in English, “No go Afghanistan!”—smiling and spreading his hands. — The Young Man, at whom this was evidently directed, smiled back and said, “Okay.” —What the hell.

The next day Muhammad stayed under his sleeping rug, only poking his head out every now and then like an aquatic mammal surveying the surface of things as it refills its lungs; then Muhammad dove back into his own unconscious.

Whenever the Young Man wrote in his notebook, men came up to him and looked over his shoulder. When they could, they sounded out the words to everyone else, who nodded approvingly.

The Mujahideen grew concerned about their guest’s restlessness. In the early afternoons of those days, they would invite him to go up the river with them. Just out of sight of the village, near a shed they called “the schoolhouse” (it was always shut), was a pleasant slope of alpine meadow studded with smooth warm boulders. On these rocks the Mujahideen would stretch out for hours, eyes closed in bliss. At first the Young Man accompanied them. But he got bored quickly. So he remained inside the malik’s house; he preferred to be bored indoors.

One morning at around eleven a youngish fellow showed up and wanted to take the Young Man somewhere. The Mujahideen had gone out early. — “You from what party?” said the Young Man in his cautious Pushtu. — The other smiled, hesitated. “Gulbuddin,” he said at last. — “Where you go?” said the Young Man. “What you want?” He knew that Gulbuddin and the N.L.F. were at loggerheads. — But the man just smiled and touched his sleeve. — “I stay here,” the Young Man said. — The Gulbuddin man lay in the next charpoy, staring at him. He stared at him for half the day. — To hell with him. To hell with the Afghans. Stupid idea to come here. — When the Mujahideen came back, the Gulbuddin man got up and left.

A great anger was swelling inside the Young Man — the righteous fury of the spoiled child. He said to the Mujahideen, as he said this time every day, “I only want to help you; this is for you, not for me; I’ve been waiting a long time here; my time will soon be up, and then I won’t be able to help you, to send you rupees. Mujahideen—thoughtless, disorganized; maybe they don’t want me to help them!”§ —It had taken hours to learn to say all this (he had had to look up almost every word), but, after all, the Young Man had all the time in the world, and he had been practicing every day. — “Tomorrow,” they soothed him. — “Tomorrow no good,” he replied as usual, “every day you say ‘tomorrow.’ I must go to Afghanistan today or I won’t be able to help you.”

He’d scored this time, though; that he could see. The Mujahideen conferred. Finally Abdullah, the one who knew a little English, said: “Sit down, please.” They all went off.

He waited until his dysentery called him. When he returned from the cemetery, Muhammad was packing the Young Man’s things and telling him to hurry. Evidently, the Young Man reflected, this sort of continual quiet insistence had been what was required all along. Maybe a positively dictatorial European manner, like that of any Great White Man, could even arrange him a skirmish at the appropriate hour … Then the Young Man noticed that they were heading back down the valley toward Parachinar.

“Peshawar?” he said.

“Peshawar.”

They were sorry for him. They kept asking how he was and picking apricots for him to eat. Muhammad carried his pack. When they got to town they told him that the bus was “broken”; he’d have to spend the night in the N.L.F. office; but, as for Peshawar, “Tomorrow!” they told him confidently. At the N.L.F. office they left him.

He sat in the courtyard of the office, surrounded by heroic posters and cartons of biscuits marked for Afghan refugees. The green flag of Islam blew above his head. He was stunned and despondent. An old man came up to him to display his prosthetic arm. The Young Man interrupted, explaining why it was so desperately important for him to go to Afghanistan that day. The old man replied that he was at the American’s service, which meant, no doubt, nothing. — It was very hot now that they were out of the mountains, and the Young Man’s intestinal parasites churned nauseously. There was no bathroom in sight, and no word for it in his English-Pushto kitab. He longed to go home.

 

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